In the first of a series of columns throughout the Guinness Six Nations, official statistician Stuart Farmer takes a deep dive into how rankings, domestic form and coaching experience can affect a country’s performance in Rugby’s Greatest Championship.
A QUESTION OF RANK
No doubt a talking point after most match weekends but just how strongly do world ranking points correlate with success in the Guinness Six Nations?
Currently, Ireland and Wales are at their highest ever positions, with Ireland having almost attained the same level in points terms as England did back at the beginning of the rankings in 2003.
England themselves are currently fourth, meaning that three of the world’s top four ranked sides will play in this year’s Championship, while Scotland have also been at historically high positions in recent years.
But does it matter? That England side famously won only one Grand Slam but achieved success both at home and overseas against the top Southern Hemisphere sides, and only just missed out on slams in 2000 and 2001.
It certainly would have taken a brave fan to predict in 2003 that England would wait another eight years before winning the title again.
Remarkably, in the eight seasons in which Grand Slams have been achieved since 2004, the team who did it were not the highest ranked of the six.
On the three occasions that Wales have achieved the feat (2005, 2008 and 2012), they were ranked fourth, fifth and fourth of the six participating nations respectively.
The home and away nature of the Guinness Six Nations can obviously tilt the balance one way or another from year to year, but the overall lesson must be that rankings are not a strong predictor of success in this Championship.
THE CHAMPIONS CUP FACTOR?
Perhaps by studying how each country has performed in club competition a greater reading on whether that has any bearing at international level can be gleaned? For example, if we consider how many Champions Cup quarter-finalists each nation has supplied in a given year it may give a guide to success.
From 2003 onwards – that being the first season where the quarter-finals were played after the conclusion of the Six Nations – the most qualifiers that any one nation has amassed in the European Champions Cup was England with five in 2015/16, the same year that England won their only Grand Slam since 2003 (when they in fact only had two quarter-finalists).
On the three occasions that France have had half of the quarter-finalists (in 2010, 2011 and 2018), the national side claimed a Grand Slam in 2010, finished second in the Championship a year later and fourth last year.
Wales, Scotland and Ireland’s chances of qualifying for the knockout stages of the Champions Cup are different because they have fewer provinces/regions than the English and French clubs.
However, this season is only the second time that Ireland have three quarter-finalists, although back in 2012 they had four qualifiers for the tournament pool stages and subsequently finished 3rd in the following Championship.
The best Wales have achieved since 2003 is two quarter-finalists in 2008 and 2009, winning a Grand Slam in 2008 and finishing fourth a year later.
For the first time ever Scotland have secured two quarter-finalists this season; in the three other instances where one Scottish side has made it to the last eight in Europe – 2004 (Edinburgh), 2012 (Edinburgh) and 2017 (Glasgow) – they suffered Championship whitewashes (in 2004 and 2012), whilst in 2017 they finished fourth.
Overall, while it’s clear that the Guinness Six Nations is highly unpredictable – just look at that England team from 2003 – there is at least some correlation between club and Championship success.
HEAD COACH FORTUNES
Joe Schmidt enters his sixth Guinness Six Nations as head coach, attempting to help Ireland become the first side to win back to back Grand Slams since France did so in the old Five Nations back in 1997-98.
It will no doubt be a tough ask, however, as in the nine previous instances of Grand Slams being won prior to last season, only Wales in 2013 and England in 2017 have managed to win the Championship the season immediately following a slam.
Another Championship would be Schmidt’s fourth, which would tie Bernard Laporte’s record, whilst another slam would make him the third man after Laporte and Warren Gatland to have won more than one since five became six at the turn of the Millennium.
Warren Gatland embarks on his tenth campaign for Wales in Rugby’s Greatest Championship (he also oversaw two for Ireland in 2000 and 2001), excluding the two when Rob Howley took the reins in 2013 and 2017 with Gatland otherwise engaged on British & Irish Lions duties.
On the face of it, the Wales coaching structure is the epitome of consistency, but Wales are the only nation to have switched tack during a Championship campaign by replacing the head coach mid-stream.
They’ve actually done this on three occasions, with Steve Hansen replacing Graham Henry in 2002, Hansen himself being replaced by Mike Ruddock in 2004 and then Ruddock also failing to complete the tournament when Scott Johnson took over after two games in 2006.
Gatland is one of four men who have been head coach of two different countries in the Guinness Six Nations, the others being Andy Robinson (England and Scotland), Scott Johnson (Wales and Scotland) and Jacques Brunel (Italy and France).
Incidentally, the only two head coaches to have won 80% of their matches in charge in the Championship both did it with England: Clive Woodward (2000-04) and Stuart Lancaster (2012-15).
Could Joe Schmidt join them? Even with a Grand Slam, he’d only move up from 72% to 77%!